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“What would the rest of us do?”

Survivors of the Alt Empordà wildfires pay tribute to local residents who helped in the disaster

Citizens came out in force to rescue trapped motorists from a steep cliff on which two people died

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Dozens of people cut off by the advance of the Alt Empordà wildfires flee down a steep embankment in Portbou.

Rubén P. is still turning it over in his head: “If I’d had my keys handy... If I hadn’t had to go home and return to the port...”

Rubén was out with his wife and child at the local fiestas of Portbou, Girona, when he heard that a wildfire was burning in the mountain and that the road to France was packed with cars.

Because of the panic unleashed by the fire, a 46-year-old Frenchman named Pascal Couton and his 15-year-old daughter Océane died after jumping over a cliff in their flight from the flames. Of the 50-odd cars trapped on the N-260 road, none were reached by the fire. But mortal fear spurred over 60 people to head down a cliff on foot toward the sea. Another 140 people waited it out, then drove back the way they had come.

Back at the port, Rubén, 42, saw two little figures standing on a rock. “It was 10 minutes, five to go and five to return,” he says, in reference to how long it took him to go home for his boat keys and try to save the two stranded people. But he was too late. He found the teenager’s body floating among the rocks. The father’s body was found by a neighbor who also set out in his boat.

The idyllic Portbou, where the philosopher Walter Benjamin sought refuge from the Nazis, turned into the stuff of nightmares last Sunday for hundreds of people caught by an unexpected wildfire. The Civil Guard suspects that the driver of “a small, dark Peugeot” threw a cigarette butt out the window and inadvertently started the fire.

Cars had been forced to make a detour here because the national road and the highway were closed to traffic.

But this winding road became a trap for the Couton family, which was returning home to Argèles-Sur-Mer, in France, after holidaying in Spain. The mother, an 18-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son are in a hospital in Girona, two of them in intensive care. The entire family, including the deceased father and 15-year-old daughter, jumped from a height of over 30 meters when they saw a tongue of fire coming at them. They were the only people to break away from the main group.

“We kept yelling at them, ‘Stay calm! Don’t jump, we’re coming to get you!’” recalls the Civil Guard officer José Antonio Liaño. But they ignored the plea. Liaño has not been able to sleep since.

Liaño also ran to the port in search of people with boats, and ran into Rubén, who took him close to the stranded family. “They jumped from a great height, more than the other three...” he says about the father and daughter. He hoped to find them alive, but now thinks that they were probably unable to swim at all and drowned.

“It was panic,” he says, that pushed people to climb down steep terrain covered with rocks and cacti. It was over 20 minutes on foot, with the fire biting at their bare feet. “Our feet were bare because we were relaxing inside the car,” explains Izzet Köken, 38, who is wearing a heavy bandage. He was traveling with his wife, three children (ages eight, seven and one-and-a-half), as well as a friend and his wife, and they were on their way back to Denmark after spending a few days in Barcelona. It was sunny, they had the sea in front of them, and even though there was a traffic jam, the views were worth it. So they were relaxed... until the fire showed up from who knows where.

Köken’s was the first in a long line of cars to be turned back by the police, but that way out was collapsed as well.

People got out of their cars, looked at each other — and then the fire jumped from one side of the mountain to the other. They felt trapped. “What do we do? Do we go down?” they asked each other. And so, in a collective decision, several dozen people risked their lives by climbing down the steep cliff on foot. A man who was carrying his son on his back fell on his face and when he got up again he was covered in blood. The wife of Köken’s friend broke her foot. But they kept going. Down at the bottom they found local residents waiting for them with food, water and blankets. “They were true heroes,” says the Danish man, his voice choked with emotion.

Among the heroes was Daniel Pontonet, 32, who made four trips with children in his arms. From the little beach where the locals could help the people coming down, there was a narrow 200-meter road to safety that nearly plunges into the sea in some points. “The children held on to you tight, they wouldn’t let go,” explains Pontonet, who was there on vacation with some friends. He says he saw the Couton family fall “like dolls.” He’s had trouble sleeping, too.

Around 60 people received medical assistance in the village, most with minor injuries. Besides the French family, an 85-year-old woman had a panic attack. Everyone is now saying that the people who risked their lives by climbing down the cliff were overcome by panic. But as the mayor of Portbou notes: “What would the rest of us do if we saw a tongue of fire approaching?”

Felipe Puig, the Catalonia regional interior chief, on Tuesday called on citizens to photograph the license plates of cars if they see someone flicking out a cigarette butt — two such incidents are believed to have started the two blazes that have engulfed the Alt Empordà municipality, in which Portbou lies, since Sunday.

“We cannot forget that we have just witnessed the driest winter in 40 years,” said Puig. The Catalan authorities expressed optimism that the fires, which have destroyed between 9,000 and 10,000 hectares, would be largely under control by the end of Tuesday.